Upon reading the news update from Christian Leader editor Connie Faber regarding “CL to implement changes,” I was initially a bit confused by the vagueness regarding the problem. What could possibly be the “CL content and editorial perspective” that caused “an erosion of trust and confidence” among some of my fellow believers?
I’d found CL to be very beneficial to me, trying to reassure us and give ideas as to how to handle Christian life during the turbulent past couple of years. I’d also greatly appreciated the issue devoted to racial justice concerns, as it is quite relevant to my life in a racially-diverse family, church, neighborhood, city, and state.
How very disappointed I was when I looked back at the letters to the editors I’d frequently skimmed and found not scriptural issues but instead complaints that CL (and Fresno Pacific University) are somehow wrong to seriously discuss the issues that many of our non-white brothers and sisters in the United States still face. Complaints that weren’t rooted in any issues of Scripture, testimony or facts, but complaints that CL was seen as supporting an issue perceived as not aligning with one political party.
Out of the 12 letters to the editor in 2021, I found five that could be characterized as strongly negative (four about CL, and one about FPU), and I could not help but notice commonalities. Most obviously: negative responses to discussion of racial justice, racism and diversity. They also assumed a distinctly partisan tone, favoring or assuming one political party as correct and the other wrong.
Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ
In this time, we have fellow brothers and sisters in Christ telling us that they want to be treated fairly in ways that are still unachieved. We still see large disparities in how Black Americans are treated by law enforcement, housing, banking and more. For some examples, studies find Black American drivers are still pulled over by law enforcement at significantly higher rates yet searches find illegal materials at lower rates than white drivers. In the courtroom, sentences for those convicted are statistically consistently higher for Black Americans. Black homeowners are still finding their property assessed at low rates, until they hide all evidence a black family lives there. Studies of banking practices find Black applicants are turned down much more frequently and given higher interest rates, even with similar qualifications to accepted white applicants. Homeownership is one of the greatest drivers of generational wealth, and black families have been continually denied it in the past, and with added barriers in the present.
In my own life, I’ve had a black man tell me his story of being severely beaten by the police, without cause, and without recourse. He simply had to limp home the next day, when they released him with no charges. I’ve seen the disparate treatment my non-white neighbors received, while I received the benefit of the doubt in very similar situations. I’ve listened to and read the work of people like Jemar Tisby, Tyler Burns, Ally Henny, for example, and I can’t ignore what they are dealing with, regardless of those who would try and contradict them. These struggles aren’t ancient history, but issues still affecting many people, while the damage done by past injustice hasn’t been resolved, either.
If we look at these continuing disparities (much less the issue that past disparities continue to leave Black Americans in poverty at much, much higher rates, due to the long history of stolen property/wealth) and still insist that we shouldn’t be talking about these things, are we not then the “white moderate” that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about in his letter from the Birmingham jail: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”
We shouldn’t confront this sin?
Some replies seemed to acknowledge that racial injustice is a problem, yet then brushed it off as if confronting this particular sin means only some people are sinners. This is not the case at all, and I find using “all have sinned” as a suggestion that we can’t confront a sin that’s specific to a particular group of people strange. Would we have the same response regarding any other attempt to confront sin and injustice in our society? I doubt it.
I am very aware of the cottage industry that has sprung up online around drumming up fear of “Critical Race Theory” and other elements of racial justice. Much of this industry is not based on careful criticism but misrepresenting statements in the worst possible light, then ignoring responses calling it a misrepresentation. It also attempts to find the most extreme statements by some figures then presents those as if they are representative of everyone discussing racial justice. That’s also dishonest.
Instead, take the time to listen, and do so without seeking an opportunity to discredit or discount what they are saying. I’ve found the “Pass the Mic” podcast extremely helpful for understanding what some of my black brothers and sisters in Christ are saying, and why they feel certain ways. We don’t have to agree with every point to recognize what they are saying as valid and important, either.
Who are we following?
In one letter to CL, the authors specifically say the articles are “well written, sincere and interesting, even educational for understanding different perspectives”, yet still complain that it’s too similar to “one political party,” as if we aren’t allowed to take a stance if the Democratic party’s position on that one issue is too close. I found that to be a trend. Complaints seemed to fail to address the substance of anything said in the articles, and/or complain that it’s too “liberal”, while frequently pointing to partisan, Republican sources, as if we aren’t allowed to support an issue if it’s not compatible with the Republican party platform. Are we following Jesus Christ or the Republican party, because I was under the belief that it was the former, not the latter.
This is a significant question, as studies are finding that voters who identify themselves as “evangelical” have drastically changed what they consider their most important values during the past decade. Ten years ago, over two thirds said morality is important from our political leaders, but now over two thirds say it’s not important, in one of the most dramatic changes. We’re finding that joining religious belief to a political party is a faustian bargain that ultimately corrupts faith in order to achieve power for the party.
Are we religiously evangelical or politically? It matters.
“Evangelical” has become a complicated term. I’ve grown up in the evangelical context before becoming Mennonite Brethren, and I still consider myself evangelical, in this sense. I will continue to affirm this as long as this sense of the term exists.
However, “evangelical” has also become a political movement as a wing of the Republican party, which often has no connection to being Christian in any real sense of the word. In this sense of the word, I strongly reject evangelicalism. Studies have found that more people are identifying themselves as “evangelical” in the last six years, but the number of those evangelicals attending church once a year or less has drastically fallen (over 40 percent, now).
This is is one of the things that drew me to the Mennonite Brethren, and Butler MB in particular: we are religiously evangelical, but not politically. Political evangelicalism is a pursuit of worldly power, which is exactly what Jesus rejected when he said his “kingdom is not an earthly kingdom” (John 18:36). Are we going to pursue that worldly power, or the kingdom of God?
Let’s be clear
I fully expect some to misunderstand what I’m saying here, so let me be very clear: I am not saying that members of my fellow Mennonite Brethren family can’t be Republicans, any more than that they can’t be Democrats. I am also very much not saying that we can’t engage with political issues.
On the contrary, I argue that we should engage with political issues, because politics does have a large impact on the people around us. There is a very bright line between engaging with politics and succumbing to the lure of political partisanship and the pursuit of power, though.
The difference is between arguing for a position on an issue (regardless of the party that supports it), as opposed to adopting an entire partisan platform, and insisting there can be no argument or opposition. The latter is what I repeatedly saw in critical and angry letters to CL.
My point is that we must not ever insist that MB members have to follow any one party, because political power is not what Jesus taught. Be Republican (if that is what you politically agree with), Democrat (if you so choose), neither, or some other party, depending on how you interpret the party and your faith. Allow your faith to inform your political opinions, but don’t insist we must let our faith be decided by a political party’s platform.
I will never be able to accept a church that joins political partisanship, and it was the Mennonite Brethren who convinced me of this. I believe the MB church has so much we could be doing to reach out to those feeling lost and abandoned by the way many evangelical churches have turned from religious to political evangelicalism. However, I fear that if the Mennonite Brethren were to also make that turn to chase political power, we will lose our witness as followers of Jesus Christ.
From Don Morris, USMB national director and Christian Leader editor-in-chief: The U.S. Conference of MB Churches does not endorse or promote any specific political party, candidate or platform. Christians should never conflate the message of God’s Word with that of a political party. We must evaluate political positions in light of the Bible, not the other way around.
This article has been posted by Christian Leader staff. The Christian Leader is the magazine of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.